Welcome to The Hartford Portfolio, Yankee Institute’s update on what’s happening at the State Capitol during the legislative session.
“Here’s some of what we saw in Hartford this week:”
House and Senate Rush To Approve SEBAC Raises
The House on Thursday suspended its rules to approve (96-52) the $1.9 billion, four-year agreement between Governor Lamont and the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition (SEBAC) without waiting the usual three days after it was added to the chamber’s calendar.
The deal awards full-time state employees $3,500 bonuses, immediate pay raises retroactive to last summer, and additional raises in July 2022 and July 2023. All told, state unions will get raises averaging more than 15 percent between now and summer 2023, with some groups topping 20 percent. The current cost estimate of the deal works out to more than $41,000 per state employee—though Yankee Institute warned last week the price tag will climb far higher because yet another round of raises will be negotiated in 2024.
Much of the House floor debate centered on fears that the General Assembly needed to ratify the deal to avoid being taken to arbitration by the unions—a bizarre claim to make in the body that created and could easily amend those same arbitration rules. The Senate voted on Friday afternoon (22-13) to approve the deal, as multiple senators raised concerns about the agreement’s contents and Lamont Administration’s decision to send them a 1,700+ page unsearchable—partially handwritten—document.
Fair Rent Bill Creates Unfair Burden
The House on Wednesday night approved a bill that would force 27 municipalities to create “fair rent commissions,” which would have broad powers to police rent increases, subpoena landlords, and investigate whether proposed hikes are “harsh and unconscionable.” State law allows towns and cities to create these commissions, and 18 other towns and cities currently operate them. The state doesn’t set much by way of boundaries, such as required training for commission members. Besides requiring local taxpayers to fund their operations, the bill would also subject localities to the cost of potential litigation if landlords should challenge the loosely defined parameters used by commissions.
Senate Gags Employers
The Senate passed what labor unions have called the “captive audience bill,” a measure that bars employers from making employees sit for meetings about—among other things—any drawbacks from unionizing. Ironically, the bill bans practices similar to those that state lawmakers have imposed at government agencies and municipal offices to help unions pressure new employees to join.
Tobacco Money Up In Smoke
The Finance, Revenue, and Bonding Committee approved a measure that would put a portion ($4 million) of the state’s tobacco settlement funds, which vary by year, into a trust fund for anti-tobacco efforts. The state since 2018 has deposited nothing in the Tobacco Health Trust Fund and instead steered the money to the General Fund. Representative Holly Cheeseman proposed hiking the deposit to $32 million, but met opposition from committee co-chair Sen. John Fonfara, who expressed concerns about creating “a real problem in our budget.” Through 2021, Connecticut over the past 23 years has received over $2.8 billion in tobacco settlement money—and used just $29 million on anti-tobacco measures. This is anything but the only type of revenue being gobbled up by Connecticut’s swelling General Fund: as Marc Fitch explained last year, governors and legislators have diverted more than $250 million in “clean air” and similar charges meant to support environmental concerns.
Saving the Savings Reports
On a positive note, lawmakers quashed a stealth move by the state comptroller’s office to eliminate annual reports showing much (or how little) a 2017 deal signed by Governor Dannel Malloy and state employee unions was saving state taxpayers. The comptroller’s office—which has missed its deadline three times to produce the reports—earlier this year asked lawmakers to eliminate the requirement as part of a larger “technical corrections” bill that treated the reporting requirement as an obsolete rule. After Yankee Institute sounded the alarm, Representatives Dan Fox and Gale Mastrofrancesco authored an amendment that kept the reports in place, citing “transparency and accountability.”
A Little Fraud Never Hurts, Right?
The Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would soften the penalties for unemployment insurance (UI) fraud. State law currently classifies UI fraud involving more than $500 as a felony, and the bill would hike the threshold to $2,000.
Two of the state’s largest unions, SEIU and AFL-CIO, supported this change. Ed Hawthorne, state AFL-CIO President, said the bill “will help individuals remain employed, support their families, and move forward with new employment without being labeled a felon.”
The move comes as the state UI fund remains on the hook for about $463 million out of almost $900 million borrowed to pay claims during the early months of the pandemic—and after the state Labor Department estimated one in 14 such claims was fraudulent.
Hartford Gets Its Culture War
The recent news about state abortion laws and the U.S. Supreme Court matter little for Connecticut, which has had laws on the books that don’t rely on the courts upholding Roe v. Wade since 1990. But state lawmakers in the House, wanting to be seen participating in the broader national “Abortion Wars,” approved a bill 87-60 on Tuesday that sponsors say is necessary to increase access to abortion and provide legal protection to those receiving and providing abortions. Opponents questioned part of the measure’s constitutionality during the floor debate on the basis that it seeks to limit the actions of “bounty hunters” and other state governments. The measure would also allow advanced practice registered nurses, midwives, and physician assistants to perform certain abortion procedures.